mon 22/07/2024

Madam Butterfly, English National Opera | reviews, news & interviews

Madam Butterfly, English National Opera

Madam Butterfly, English National Opera

Minghella's classic production makes a stylish return to ENO

Eastern Promise: Madam Butterfly offers audiences a visual box of delightsClive Barda

Origami birds flock in graceful chorus, a dancer flutters two fans into a pulsing captive butterfly, curtains of cherry blossom descend over glowing paper lanterns, and of course a small bunraku puppet steals the show. Seven years on Anthony Minghella’s Madam Butterfly is as beautiful as ever, and – if possible – even more Japanese.

This Olivier Award-winning production is up there with Jonathan Miller’s Mafia Rigoletto as one of English National Opera’s all-time stars, and for its visual aplomb and emotive excess deserves every bit as long a career. Revived here by Sarah Tipple, the show has the odd clumsy moment (which will doubtless improve through the run) but benefits from the return of two of the opera’s original cast – Mary Plazas as the tragic Butterfly, and Gwyn Hughes Jones as Pinkerton.

There’s something in the gauzy loveliness of it all that still sticks in the throat

After Bryan Hymel’s strained performance in the 2009 revival, Hughes Jones makes a welcome appearance to reclaim his role. His is not the largest of voices (and certainly a minnow compared to the heft on offer up the road at the Royal Opera House) but there are colours there beautiful enough to rival even Michael Levine’s sets, and Hughes Jones deploys them well. Never over-singing but romping up to Pinkerton’s insistently high climaxes with absolute commitment, Hughes Jones’s only weakness comes in the ensembles where his lack of brute power can unbalance things slightly. His legato however (showcased best in a glowing “Dovunque al mondo”) offers generous compensation.

Few operatic suspensions of disbelief are greater than those demanded by the vocal challenges of Puccini’s 15- (and latterly 18-) year-old heroine. Mary Plazas (pictured right with Hughes Jones as Pinkerton) like many before her offers a maturity that flourishes best in Act II, but which fails to give the role the joyous innocence Puccini surely writes into the chattering interruptions and love-talk of his score. Plazas’s Butterfly is tragic from her first uttering, and while it’s an impressively controlled dramatic performance (and her characterful husk in lower registers and the resonance of her floated pianissimos do their work well) it still lacks arc.

Pamela Helen Stephens is quietly establishing herself as an unexpected star at ENO, and her Suzuki marks another major step forward. Stephens proved in last year’s The Return of Ulysses that she can do dramatic intensity, and here it was harnessed to some seriously weighty singing, tempered for the Flower Duet into glowing warmth, but later released at its full force. Less successful was John Fanning’s Sharpless who made the Consul even more of a cipher than usual, and failed to bring much by way of sheen to his singing. Oleg Caetani’s rather indulgent speeds didn’t help, but others coped with these rather better. Less indulgence could also be wished of the brass section, whose triumphant moments risked obliterating the tender fragility of Minghella's staging, not to mention most of the singing.

David Parry’s libretto doesn’t improve with acquaintance, and all Minghella’s vernacular imagery goes for naught when trapped in such sung banalities as “a multi-purpose dwelling”, while Sharpless’s “Goddam that Bastard Pinkerton” is still funny rather than stirring. Escaping textual hindrances, Sorrow’s many black-clad puppeteers still bring unnatural life and pathos to their wooden charge, and it would take a stern viewer indeed not to be a little bit susceptible to this expressive creature.

It’s hard to believe, looking at the assured manipulation of stage space and planes of action that this was Minghella’s first opera production. As a visual spectacle it is beyond reproach, but there’s something in the gauzy loveliness of it all that still sticks in the throat.

Concealing the ugliness of the tale behind sliding screens, transforming blood into flowing scarves, a real bastard child into a puppet, Minghella risks a dangerous complicity with Puccini. Both score and set conspire to shroud Butterfly in romance, to elevate a grubby intrigue into a grand passion. The result is faithful and beautiful, but lacks the piquant clarity of productions that read against the grain and strip this Orientalist epic back to the warped skeleton concealed behind cherry blossom, or under the many silken folds of a kimono.

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